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Harry Crosby: A Biographical Essay


Edward Brunner
Harry Crosby’s "Brief Transit"

He had gifts that would have made him an explorer, a soldier of fortune, a revolutionist: they were qualities fatal to a poet.
                                        --Malcolm Cowley’s summary of Harry Crosby

Harry Crosby has been twice cursed with exceptional biographers (Malcolm Cowley in 1934 and Geoffrey Wolff in 1976) who were interested in exposing the sensational aspects of his too-brief existence – he died in 1929 at the age of 31 in a double suicide pact that seemed made for tabloid headlines – but who were not particularly sympathetic to his writings. Those writings, to be sure, were not designed to be likable or even that accessible: avant-garde, experimental, surreal, emerging from a continental tradition that cultivated forms like the prose poem that were alien to Anglo-American modernism (though successfully explored by Williams). And Crosby did not become a compelling writer until the last years of his life. His apprenticeship, moreover, was particularly erratic, and worst of all, it unfolded in public, as Crosby’s own press, Black Sun, released a steady stream of his work from 1927 onward.

Crosby no doubt first took up writing poetry much as he took up other amusements like living the expatriate life in France or owning race-horses or driving a Bugatti. His independent wealth, multiplied as a result of the favorable exchange rate enjoyed by the American dollar in postwar Europe, allowed him such indulgences as refurbishing a medieval mill for living quarters outside Paris or taking extended traveling tours, or experimenting with photography, or learning to fly solo in an aeroplane, a gadget still so new in 1929 that no one had agreed on its spelling. But it is too simple to portray Crosby as a fugitive from a bad Scott Fitzgerald novel, though that was exactly the way Malcolm Cowley notoriously introduced him in Exile’s Return (1934), in which the trajectory of his life, from excess to doom, came to represent the ups and downs of the roaring twenties. Geoffrey Wolff broke from Cowley’s example by refusing to accord Crosby representative status, but his decision instead to focus on Crosby as exemplifying a weak and indulgent character, while it made for a gripping (if heavily moralistic) narrative, hardly served to promote interest in his writings.

Crosby’s beginnings suggest how easily a legend could grow up around him. His family was old-line Boston and wealthy: his Uncle Jack, who opened doors for young Harry in the banking industry, was J. P. Morgan. Yet Crosby never fit into the type of the spoiled aristocrat. After graduating from the exclusive boy’s prep school St. Mark’s in 1917, he promptly volunteered for the American Field Service Ambulance Corps. He became part of a New England tradition whereby sons of the elite, from Robert Gould Shaw and Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the Civil War to E. E. Cummings in World War I, carved out a special role for themselves in a conflict that they could easily have avoided. In France he was at the Battle of Somme, and when America officially entered the War, he enlisted with the U. S. Army Ambulance Corps and served at the Second Battle of Verdun. After the Battle of Orme, his section (the 29th, attached to the 120th French Division) was cited for bravery, and in 1919 Crosby was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Crosby’s return to Boston to attend Harvard under an accelerated program for veterans led to his graduation in 1921. He had met, in the meantime, his future wife – then with the name of "Polly" ("Caresse" was a later invention), and six years older than he, married to another and with two young children. Their courtship was tempestuous; it scandalized blue-blood Boston; and when they were at last married, in a dramatic ceremony in New York City, his family was perhaps relieved to think of the couple taking up residence in far-off Paris, where he had previously been employed in a branch of one of Uncle Jack’s many banks. Certainly Crosby expressed relief at returning to Paris and residing among other young expatriates, on the fringes of the bohemian left bank, with artists and writers mingling among the wealthy.

Settling in France, the Crosbys traveled in Europe, purchased first one race horse then two more, visited North Africa (where they first sampled opium, an indulgence to which they would return over the years), and visited Spain. From 1922 to 1925, the Crosbys led a life not untypical of the comfortably well-off expatriate. This began to change in 1925 when Crosby arranged dual publication of books of poetry by his wife and by him. (Around the same time, his wife became "Caresse.") When Crosby’s Sonnets for Caresse arrived on the desk of Harriet Monroe in Poetry, she reviewed it favorably. In April 1927, the Crosbys officially launched the Black Sun Press. Along with fine art versions by classic writers (like Poe) in the kind of deluxe illustrated editions that were favored by wealthy collectors, the new press also published Crosby’s second collection, Red Skeletons, poetry heavily indebted to Baudelaire and the turn-of-the-century British "decadent" tradition exemplified by Oscar Wilde and Arthur Symons. In October 1927, Crosby inherited the bulk of famous expatriate (and close friend of Edith Wharton) Walter Berry’s library (Berry was a cousin and he and Harry had visited in Europe since 1923). Crosby’s affection for books and for libraries was evident in the delight with which he received Berry’s 7,000 volume library, but it is also present in two unpublished essays from this period in which he so lovingly described the look and feel of well-printed volumes he had rescued from bookstalls that he eroticized the experience: "I would rather inhale the smell of ruin in The Punishments of China, its ecclesiastical odor of charred incense, its aroma of dead leaves and long-abandoned castle halls, than smell the contents of a cobwebbed bottle of Napoleon brandy, or gunpowder along the road to Bras."

While Crosby continued to maintain a glamorous and luxurious life style that included an "open marriage" and that was financed by selling the bonds and stocks whose dividends were the basis of his income, he also began to read deeply in contemporary literature. Since the important artists who were painting, writing and performing in Paris occupied a demi-monde that often intersected with the wealthy and the bored, Crosby’s amusements in effect constituted a hands-on education in the tenets of experimental modernism. He shook off the influences of the decadents, recognizing how out-of-date his education had been. He started to sell off hundreds of the volumes that he had inherited from Berry, as he cultivated a taste for current writing. As part of his new self-education, he became fascinated by versions of suicide, drawn especially toward narratives of artists who killed themselves. He developed an obsessive interest in imagery that was centered on the sun, and he found that by returning to such imagery in his own writing he would always have a ready supply of material. The "black sun" has been described as a concept intended to unite powerful forces of life and death – an effort to unify conflicting archetypes – but as a visual design, it no doubt had sexual significance. Every doodle of a "black sun" that Crosby added to his signature also includes an arrow, jutting upward from the "y" in Crosby’s last name and aiming toward the center of the sun’s circle: a phallic thrust received by a welcoming erogenous zone.

Through the end of 1927, Crosby began viewing his own writing practice with a new self-consciousness. Most important was his decision to reconstruct and produce a diary that was both a chronicle of the times and an expressive, innovative work of art. The final concept of this diary only emerged after proceeding through several stages. Crosby had always kept diaries and working notebooks, but the idea of combining them into something publishable began when he worked that summer of 1927 to prepare a lengthy typescript entitled "Shadow of the Sun" whose exact nature eludes description. Its numbered passages (over 230 in all, and 110 manuscript pages long) are remarkably diverse. One passage offers a compressed description of an event while another records a quote discovered while reading; some passages are brief four or five word phrases while others may be lengthy lists of favorite words; still others convey in terse, imagistic detail, his impressions of a trip to North Africa. This particular text, however, Crosby never published. Having originated in rough diary-like notes, it was now returned to that form, but in a thoroughly reconstructed manner, in a "diary" that presented itself as covering daily events from 1922 to 1926. The sets of numbered paragraphs was now reshaped and expanded into a sequence of dated diary entries. Almost all of the passages were rewritten to provide more informative detail. Several of the original 230 passages were set aside, to be collected later as the prose poems in Torchbearer (Crosby’s final published volume, printed posthumously, although it mostly included work from this initial stage in his development). At the same time, other writings that he had previously composed as individual poems or prose poems were now folded back into the reconstructed diary, as if they were observations that had simply occurred on a certain day. Out of this thorough reshaping emerged a "diary" of the years 1922-1926, which Crosby entitled Shadows of the Sun, first in a series of three that would be published by the Black Sun Press.

Crosby began to take action to live up to his new role as a diarist. In 1928, he became a regular contributor to Eugene Jolas’s transition, eventually offering financial support and serving as an advisory editor. The Black Sun Press published fiction by D. H. Lawrence, poetry by Archibald MacLeish, and more poetry by Caresse, as well as two new collections of Crosby’s poetry, Chariot of the Sun and Transit of Venus. In one sense, Chariot of the Sun was an outrageous and indulgent collection – almost a dada stunt. The sun commands the major role in every work. It has become an inescapable presence, powerful, vivid, but also obsessive, even menacing. In another sense, though, the collection is a marvel, one man’s exhibit of the discursive options open to the neophyte modernist poet at this distinct moment in literary history. Crosby’s voracious appetites also included extensive reading, and Chariot of the Sun is a virtuoso demonstration, a set of textbook-perfect examples that include variations on the sonnet, vers libre, the five-line "cinquaine" poem developed by Adelaide Crapsey, descriptive travelogues in the tradition of the French prose poem, poems composed entirely of lists (some of which are devotedly encyclopedic, others of which ridicule the idea of making a list), understated love poems that echo T. S. Eliot at his most dryly delicate (one begins: "Young Raymonde in her robe de style / Is far more beautiful / Than Venus Anadyomene / Or naiad in a pool"), and what D. H. Lawrence would name as a "sound poem" – a string of apparent nonsense syllables (its first line reads: "Sththe fous on ssu cod") that were in fact a personal cipher that could be decoded as "harry poet of the sun."

If Chariot of the Sun was deliberately staged, Transit to Venus was a more intimate work, an up-to-date version of the sonnet sequence that Crosby had once produced for Caresse but which was now inspired by a disturbingly passionate affair with Josephine Rotch, one of the many beautiful young women with whom he would be intimately involved. (Though Crosby’s marriage could be described as a series of affairs, only Josephine inspired her own complete book.) Familiar declarations of passion are here filtered through a nontraditional idiom. If the lover addressed in Sonnets to Caresse was on familiar terms with Baudelaire’s work, the lover addressed in Transit to Venus is fashionably aware of Gertrude Stein, as in "Lost Things":

Lost things
Were warm with beauty
Birds of the
Birds of the have nests
Her charming gestures and her breasts
Hurtle in the darkened room,
So soft, so hushed
So soft the birds in nests,
So soft her breasts.

Toward the end of 1928, the Crosbys returned to America for visits of several weeks in Boston and New York. Crosby’s deepening engagement with his own writing is evident in the notebooks he kept during this visit – notebooks packed with overheard dialogue, with examples of advertising, with fragments of new poems, all of which he mined over the next few months, when he had returned to France. Coming to the urbanized American east after his long stay in Europe, and at a time when the whole pace of American life was increasing, Crosby was astonished by a life style that seemed to be more excessive than anything he had dreamed of. In a visit two years earlier, in 1926, before Crosby saw himself as a modernist poet, he had been distressed by an America that he was quick to condemn for its ugliness, for its un-European bustle. In a prose poem from this 1926 visit, he looked out from the observation deck of an express speeding down the Shore Line from Boston to New York and described the surrounding billboards as pouring forth a verbiage – "four out of five will get pyorrhea brush your teeth with Fordham’s for the gums more than a toothpaste it checks pyorrhea" – that was no more meaningful than the "clickety-click clickety-click" of rail joints with which he began this particular prose poem. "Industrialism is triumphant," he pronounces, "as ugliness, sordid ugliness is everywhere destroying beauty …"

In 1928, however, he found himself, as he wrote to his parents, "pro-America" or at least pro New York City. He was both elated and appalled by the vulgarity of a business culture that advertised by day and night, that dominated the cityscape and lit up the evening sky as if it had no need of the sun (it carried its own suns with it). His writings are newly galvanized by these contradictory feelings, and his notebooks are filled with sketches and fragments that portray New York City as a dark paradise of commercialization. Now in 1928 when he looks out from the observation car of the Merchant’s Express he experiences something like visual splendor and a particularly modern music:

we sit outside on the observation car and listen to the clickety-click clickety-clack clickety click click click and the rattling over the switches clickety click click click clack (Symphony of the Rails – there is no other Symphony) and we watch the red and green signal lights and the great electrical signs (Nujol for Constipation) and the gold windows of the buildings and the blaze of light from the streets below.

Elsewhere, in drafts and fragments recorded in a notebook, the American propensity for making rules and listing prohibitions catches his eye. In phrases that list actual warnings ("sitting or lying on flowerbeds or other beds is forbidden") Crosby evokes dangers both real and imagined, suggesting a Puritan obsession with sexuality that in itself erotically charges the atmosphere.

Returning to France at the beginning of 1929, Crosby continued to meet poets and writers, including Hart Crane (with whom he arranged to publish The Bridge in a deluxe edition) and D. H. Lawrence. Other Black Sun Press projects included works by James Joyce and Kay Boyle, and a volume of photography by Gretchen and Pete Powel. He organized and published a new collection entitled Mad Queen, in which he experimented with parataxis as an organizing principle. The linguistic becomes a new interest. Now writings can revolve self-reflexively around sets of words that Crosby endlessly tests in varying situations that twist, erase, mock, and sometimes even (though rarely) elevate them. "Mad" and "madness" are first among this new vocabulary. In works that appeared in transition, he testified to the new influence of James Joyce, then immersed in Finnegans Wake). In one of a series of prose poems entitled "A Short Introduction to the Word," he coined words that were both outrageous yet appropriate to a new age: "Auroramor, Barbarifire, Parabolaw, Lovegown, Nombrilomane."

Crosby also ventured into other artistic areas. He had used photography earlier in his life to record his World War I experiences. Those war photos were carefully mounted in one of the dozen scrapbooks that Harry and Caresse maintained together – elaborate productions that included press clippings, possible topics for poetry, society-page news, memorabilia and ephemera (hotel bills, racing club membership cards, Christmas greetings), appealing magazine covers, and photographs of all kinds, from family snapshots to provocative nudes. But the photography that began to hold his interest in 1929 was serious work, in line with the material that Jolas, with his sharp eye for the current and the controversial, had been including in transition. Francis Brugiere, Charles Sheeler, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky, Eugene Atget, Tina Modotti, Berenice Abbott and Man Ray all had photos reproduced in transition in just the two years that Crosby was associated with the journal. Photography in the 1920s was fighting to declare itself an equal among the visual arts by offering images that were both recognizable and abstract. Crosby used his camera’s frame-making powers not to distort objects – all remain identifiable – but to tease unexpected associations from their lines and their structure. Some images explore the interplay between the fragility of the human body and the fragility of the airplane – in 1929 a contraption that looked homemade and piecemeal. In other photos, powerful cranes that construct massive buildings are made to look as delicate as birds. Railroad right of way signals resemble alien creatures. Smokestacks and funnels take on the shapes of intriguing sculpture. In still other photos, Crosby aimed the camera at his own body and the bodies of others, at the displays for shoppers in windows, at race track crowds, and at an inflatable toy horse (disarmingly posed in a number of settings, often as if it were a much-loved infant).

Crosby also began taking flight lessons in 1929 and he completed his first solo flight on November 11, Armistice day, eleven years after the end of World War I (an event he noted in his notebooks and carried over into his diaries). He signaled his new mastery of the air by completing Aphrodite in Flight, a seventy-five paragraph how-to manual for lovers that explores the similarities between flying planes and making love to a woman. Parodically invoking the cool crisp prose of an eighteenth century French book of aphorisms, the paragraphs sometimes read like a dadaist gimmick, sometimes like sophisticated and cynical advice: "For long flights there must be a sufficient reserve of gasoline, for long love affairs a sufficient reserve of gold." Much less emotionally detached was a second sequence of prose poems from 1929 entitled Sleeping Together. In a notebook he jotted: "Transit of Venus (for Josephine) / Sleeping Together (for Caresse) / (these are the two books I have written which are damn good the others can go to hell)." First presented in excerpts in transition as transcripts of actual dreams, these prose poems became, when rewritten to include a "you" who also figures centrally within them, a testament to a deeply erotic and playful relationship that he associated, through particular textual details, with Caresse:

The Ritz Tower sways like a drunkard under the cold fire of the moon while you sit in your lace pyjamas at the edge of the bed busily cutting your toe nails to the great astonishment of a bottle of gin which stares out at you from behind a pair of my white tennis shoes.

He painstakingly copied out a longhand text as a gift to her on his arrival in New York City in December 1929.

The sensational suicide that occurred on December 10 caught his friends by surprise. In the company of Josephine Rotch (now a newly-married Josephine Bigelow), the same who had inspired the writing of Transit to Venus, he was found with a .25 caliber gunshot wound in his right temple (she was fatally wounded in the left). They had been together for much of the last week, following an elaborate itinerary that she had insisted they follow and that had taken them, among other places, to several days in a hotel in Detroit. On the day before their death, Josephine had delivered a passionate letter that, in its chant-like listing of the characteristics that they held in common, eerily resembled one of Crosby’s own poems. The 35-line missive, divided into seven stanzas and entitled There are things I know and dedicated "For Harry," ends by insisting

that the sun is our God
and that death is our marriage

Josephine died first, the coroner concluded, then some hours later, Crosby killed himself – possibly filling the time in between with entries in his notebook. These important last pages of his notebook are difficult to identify with certainty. When they were edited posthumously by Caresse, pages were shuffled, and passages were culled out as if they were likely candidates for being reshaped into diary entries, had Harry lived.

Crosby had been talking about death for the last five years, ever since he had compiled a notebook in French of quotations from literary figures, philosophers and essayists who upheld the idea of suicide. He had even set a date for the time that he and Caresse would fly together into the sun in their own white airplane. But that date was 1942, eleven years in the future, and the description was more like a passage from one of his surrealist prose poems than anything contractual. To Crosby’s suicide, Hart Crane reacted with disbelief and then disgust, describing it as another "experiment" that Crosby had decided to undertake; Crane said he was reserving his grief for Caresse, the one who was the true victim. Gretchen Powel, among those who knew him intimately, flatly refused to believe he had set out to kill himself. Just three days earlier, he had taken the fragments jotted down in his working notebook and, as he had done regularly for several years, reshaped them into versions of the diary entries that he had been publishing in the series entitled Shadows of the Sun. (It is true, these particular reshapings were unusually terse.) His notebooks were filled with plans for new poetry, including several sequences, and a dozen pieces published in transition awaited collection; numerous Black Sun projects were under way; and several dozen recent photographs (including a shipboard sequence that may have been taken on this trip to New York) had been developed in small contact-sheet sizes, with their images ready to be enlarged. Events of the moment had somehow overwhelmed all these plans for the future.

After his death, Caresse carried on the publication of the Black Sun Press, completing a sumptuous edition of The Bridge, with three photographs that were the debut of Walker Evans, and releasing a "collected Crosby" – four books that reprinted earlier collections. One of these collections had been originally introduced by D. H. lawrence. To accompany it, Caresse solicited essays for the other three from T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Stuart Gilbert. Caresse went on, then, to continue the tradition of fine publication, culminating in the release, in the late 1940s, of several issues of Portfolio, a remarkable collection of both American and English writers with several contributions by Europeans in translation that also featured prints by artists both novice and well-known. Photos by Harry, along with a selection of some of his poems, appeared in three issues.

What Caresse did not do, however, was attempt to assemble from Harry’s finished typescripts, publications in transition, and holograph manuscripts a representative collection of work from his final years. It no doubt would have been emotionally difficult for her to do so. His letters and his diaries only emphasized just how strong his attachment had been to the woman with whom he had been when he killed himself. And judging by Caresse’s own poetry, which generally avoided the extremes that Harry had embraced, she would have been hesitant to freely endorse the aesthetics of much of his later work. The volumes she produced as a homage to him were limited to those that he himself had organized and already published, including Torchbearer, a selection of early prose poetry that he had assembled in the winter of 1929 and Aphrodite in Flight. But his larger projects were never reconstructed, and no effort was made to bring together the work he had published but left uncollected. The "collected" Crosby that Caresse put forward inadvertently downplayed his later work.

Crosby, to be sure, remains a figure of enigmatic proportions. Unlike other writers who died at too early an age, he left behind him no commanding set of works that represent an unconditional achievement. He was, it would appear, still in process. But his work is not what it has been accused of being. At no point does it fit easily into the category of "Outsider Art," though to biographical critics unfamiliar with or unresponsive to the traits of French modernist experimental writing it could appear to be the confused product of a mind unhinged by excess. In fact, Crosby brings to a continental tradition of experiment an eye that is particularly fresh and bright. His responses to the booming business culture of New York and Boston are more than just satirical dismissals: he is both offended and enraptured by display on such a scale. And perhaps because he actually had the means to afford swift cars and to learn to fly a plane, he was in a position to experience the speed of a new era (he was genuinely surprised when Hart Crane, a heretofore fearless companion in almost any adventure, blanched at the idea of hopping on a plane for a quick trip to England). And in all his work there is a strong imprint of the erotic. Crosby’s confidence in himself – which might seem narcissistic, or worse, the annoying self-absorption of the very wealthy – is unshakable, but it is inseparable from a pervasive sexuality that has positive associations with freedom.

Less than a handful of critics ever thought to challenge the prevailing view of Crosby as a poetic failure. Sy Kahn assembled a selected poems in 1977 and linked Crosby with the visionary aesthetics of Hart Crane; Victor Reed in 1969 decoded the text from Chariot of the Sun that had been previously thought to be nonsense (and analyzed by D. H. Lawrence as such). Cary Nelson, in Repression and Recovery (1989), was first to remark upon Crosby’s diversity and to suggest an approach to reading his work. A pamphlet that selected wisely from Crosby’s work was privately printed in 1995 by Sara Sowers and Greg Newsome. And now, the various works available on this website (drawn from material catalogued and maintained under the direction of David Koch, Shelley Cox and Katharine Salzmann of Special Collections in the Morris Library of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale) offer a newly substantial view of a writer who was still in process, still in development, as a poet, as a photographer, and as a witness to his times when he chose to cut short his own life. 

Copyright 2001 by Edward Brunner


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